by Kathleen Goodwin
I struggle to organize my thoughts when it comes to the discourse on race in the United States as catalytic events are playing out in real time each day. I am also struggling to keep up with the tidal wave of articles, tweets, statuses, and photos that my social networks are posting about Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other victims of a deeply unequal America. And like every white person, I feel the need to qualify my analysis of these events by positing that as a white person I cannot possibly fully understand the experiences of people of color in this country. As a consequence of recent events, I have been reflecting on the real and imagined boundaries that separate Americans. Nowhere has this been more apparent for me than in my life in New York City where South Asian men drive the cabs I take, Hispanic women answer the phone in my doctor's office, East Asian women paint my nails, and black men guard the doors at my office. Yet, the people I work for and with are overwhelmingly white and usually male. New York is a diverse city, to be sure, but it seems that interaction between different races and ethnic groups is at most transactional and brief. It appears that most of us are still working for white men directly or indirectly and those who control our government continue to be predominantly white. Only fifteen black executives have ever been CEO of a Fortune 500 company and Obama was the fifth black senator in U.S. history before being elected the first black president.
Linda Chavers, a black woman who teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, authored a piece on damemagazine.com with a few lines that encapsulated this problem. Chavers attended one of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon's press conferences in August in the aftermath of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson. She writes that she realized while listening to him speak:
“This man has never dealt with a Black person in his life. I'm sure he's existed among Black people: The people who clicked his ticket on the train, put his items into the grocery bag, panhandlers on the street as he as his driver waited for the light to change. I remember thinking, He has never had anyone like me in his life in a position of authority, in a position higher than his.”
Chavers' realization targets the crux of many of the issues with diversity and white privilege in the U.S.— the lives of black Americans and other minorities, are parallel but rarely intertwined on a meaningful level with lives of white Americans. And different races may exist simultaneously with the diminishing white majority, but white people still hold most positions of power and control most decision making.
Even now, a full half century after the Civil Rights Act became law, black children are less likely to become successful adults compared to white children by almost every available metric—from their likelihood of surviving their first year (black babies are 2.2 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies) to the chance that they end up shot down by a police bullet (21 times more likely for black men than white men). And while black children are no longer mandated to attend different schools from their white peers, the U.S. educational system remains inherently skewed—where black children constitute the majority in many under-funded inner city schools and white children dominate the schools in wealthier suburbs and private schools. Chavers, a black woman with a PhD from Harvard, is undoubtedly an anomaly for the students of Phillips Exeter. Chavers implies that most of her students are white and that most of those white students have rarely interacted with a person of color in a position of authority over them, the role Chavers now plays as their teacher. Her observation of Governor Nixon illustrates why this void of black authority creates so many inequalities in American society. All of the odds are against black children from the moment they are born because the people who are shaping the forces that control their lives have rarely interacted with black people on a more than superficial basis. Simultaneously, black people are less likely to rise to positions of power and authority where they can begin to deconstruct the institutionalized biases that make it more difficult for black children to escape poverty and poor health and to receive a quality education. Racial discrimination and segregation may be illegal, but black America is still separate from white America in insidious ways.
For a white parent the idea of living in fear that your child will be unfairly or fatally targeted by police is an alien concept. This is because white parents have an entirely different experience than black ones in the U.S. regardless of wealth and educational attainment—indeed Ferguson has made it clear what non-white Americans have surely always known—that life as someone who passes as white is fundamentally different than the life of a person of color in almost every context. When Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as an “it” or a “demon” it became painfully clear that he felt justified in killing Brown because to him Brown was less than human. I am certain that this would not have occurred if Wilson had been interacting with a white teenager, with whom Wilson would at least acknowledge mutual humanity. Of course it's highly unlikely that this entire scenario would have occurred if not for the way race played into the lives of both Brown and Wilson—the neighborhoods they grew up in, the schools they attended, and the way they interact with the white dominated infrastructure that is foundational to life in the U.S. American society was created by white people and inherently promotes white success at the expense of all people of color, for whom America was not built and consistently fails to serve.